Pat Leahy: Voters are right to despair of their politicians this week
Varadkar decided Martin was bluffing and called the bluff – a disastrous misjudgment
Leinster House. The politics of pragmatism requires a clear-headed view of priorities. In recent days the priorities on view have been partisan advantage, ego and bloody-mindedness
The collapse of the confidence and supply agreement between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil – and the sudden prospect of a general election – represents a colossal failure of the political centre in the Dáil. The two big parties regard themselves as the sensible governing centre of Irish politics, the people who for all their faults and all their differences can be trusted to run the country. Unlike – as they would have it – the subversives in Sinn Féin, the headbangers of the far left and the opportunists in the Independent ranks.
The construction of the confidence and supply agreement was an expression of this identity. New generation pragmatic centrists in each party – Paschal Donohoe, Simon Coveney, Michael McGrath, Jim O’Callaghan – hammered out the details. Micheál Martin and Enda Kenny put on their national interest faces to seal it.
Its unravelling in recent days represents the triumph of partisan atavism over pragmatic politics. The consequences for good government in this country will be adverse, perhaps drastically so.
“Fault on both sides” is often the laziest school of political analysis. But it’s true here. The behaviour of both Fianna Fáil and the Government in recent days has been short-sighted and irresponsible.
Fianna Fáil decided too quickly and on questionable grounds that it wanted a head. After staying his hand on several controversies – for which he was rewarded by Government with high-handedness and presumption – Martin had clearly decided that whatever the next controversy was, he wasn’t going to back down.
It would be the Government that would have to pay a political price, and if Varadkar was unwilling to pay this price then he would deal with the consequences.
Serious political crisis
The next controversy duly arrived on Monday night with the revelation that Frances Fitzgerald had been made aware of Garda efforts to discredit whistleblower Maurice McCabe a lot earlier than she had previously admitted – at a time when she might have been in a position to do something about it.
By Tuesday it was clear to anyone paying attention that this had the makings of a serious political crisis. Almost everything involving McCabe does.
Martin conveyed privately to Varadkar and then publicly that Fitzgerald had to go. This is the sort of thing that minority partners in coalitions do: Fianna Fáil may not be in the coalition but the same rules and balance of power applies.
Fianna Fáil’s position might have been ill-judged and harsh to Fitzgerald. But it was not completely unreasonable. The seriousness of the charge against Fitzgerald was debatable, but hardly insubstantial.
What happened next is open to three interpretations.
Despite lots of available evidence, the Taoiseach decided that Martin was bluffing, and he resolved to call the bluff. A disastrous misjudgment.
Or he wants a general election because he anticipates it will be in his interest. This is unlikely, but not utterly implausible.
Or else the Taoiseach is prepared to sacrifice his Government to save his Tánaiste. There is a reason that he is the first taoiseach ever to do this: because it is just perverse.
None of the three interpretations does the Taoiseach much credit. With power comes responsibilities. Both parties are responsible, but the greater responsibility falls with Fine Gael.
Nobody wants a pre-Christmas election (least of all the media, a theme you may have noticed in much of the coverage) but that doesn’t mean that there won’t be one. In politics, as in life, lots of things happen by accident.
And despite the outpouring of public annoyance this weekend, it would be a mistake, I think, to expect that the election campaign will ultimately be about the manner of its calling.
People will be humpy for sure, and both big parties have damaged themselves by their lack of responsibility, good authority and perspective. But the outcome of the election will be about the future of the country, what sort of government people want, and the issues which matter to people in their daily lives – housing, the health service, the economy, and so on – the things that people actually elect politicians to deal with.
That will be true no matter when an election is held. Sure, the country would be in a better position to talk about these matters if it wasn’t the week before Christmas. But this is what the election will be about. Why? Because that’s what all elections are about.
Where the manner of its calling does matter is in the construction of a government after that election.
Another hung Dáil
Confidence and supply is dead; even if a compromise to get over the next few weeks is hammered out over the weekend, it’s hard to see the concept getting another run once the next Dáil gathers to figure out how it’s going to elect a government.
If anything remotely like the current polls is repeated in an election there will be another hung Dáil. How is a government to be put together then? There is no prospect of a majority for either party. After such destructive acrimony, co-operation will be difficult if not impossible.
The politics of pragmatism requires a clear-headed view of priorities. In recent days the priorities on view have been partisan advantage, ego and bloody-mindedness.
The Taoiseach travels to Brussels in three weeks for the most important EU summit in years. The week before Donohoe attends a two-day council of EU finance ministers on taxation – a subject of almost equal importance as Brexit. Far-reaching decisions about the future of this country will be reached. How is this week’s squabble more important that this?
In an anti-political age, voters often despair of their politicians. Much of the time they are wrong about that. Not this week.